Streets of Rage 4 grandly ups the ante

Guard Crush's seminal sequel goes straight to the top

Well, I was wrong again. My lack of enthusiasm towards Streets of Rage 4 was utterly misplaced. Not only is a worthy sequel to the classic Mega Drive sequel, it's also the best game in the series, and achieves this accolade without reinventing the wheel. 

In fact, it's the simplicity of Streets of Rage 4 that's its greatest strength. No levelling up. No RPG crap at all. It's just straight-up belt-scrolling brawling, with strong encounter design and a beautiful sense of fairness.  You pick a character and go to work. Every character here is great - Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding are amped-up takes on how you remember them, newcomer Cherry Hunter is a speedy guitar-wielding acrobat utilising aerial moves and power chords, while Floyd Iraia (an apprentice of Streets of Rage 3's Dr. Zan) is the heavy character, able to grab enemies from afar with his bionic arms. None of them - or the unlockable extra characters - feel like "the leftover", everyone is fun to play as, and - brilliantly - Streets of Rage 4 allows you to change character between levels with no penalty.

Mechanically, you've got everything you had in the iconic Streets of Rage 2, but it's all been expanded on in a way that makes the gameplay deeper and more complex without being overwhelming or confusing. Your neutral and direction special attacks return, but they've been supplemented with a new aerial assault usable simply by hitting the button while jumping. The tech moves from previous games like safely landing from a throw and your charged attacks now have visual cues to make them more user-friendly. Additionally, using special attacks no longer straight-up takes away chunks of your health. Instead, you'll be able to recover said special move health losses by beating on enemies, not entirely unlike the recovery system from Bloodborne but without the time constraint. Take a hit, though, and the health is lost for good. This system conditions the player to be aggressive. And you'll need to be.

Streets of Rage 4 is harder than I expected, but in a way that's conducive to a satisfying experience; you've got limited lives, yes, but you're awarded extras at certain eminently achievable score milestones. Also, the aforementioned special move system means you've no cause to be reticient to wail on the enemies with your most powerful skills. If you're confident you can claw the health back, that is. The game's difficulty kicks in on the second level, where you'll face enemies with grab moves you can't flinch them out of, and shielded enemies whose barriers only drop with sustained ass-kicking, where you'll often be surrounded by other foes who'll take your focus off them. It makes sense for the individual levels to be demanding, because you can save after every level anyway, meaning they should stand alone. And they do, wonderfully. It's tough, yes - even on Normal - but there's nothing cheap there. Every attack is telegraphed to an extent and avoidable or counterable if you know how or what to look for.

Even if you struggle and get a Game Over, you're able to continue with optional buffs - extra lives and screen-clearing super special attacks, at the cost of a lower score. That said, even if you play poorly and get a low rank, your total score will be added to a persistent progress bar that unlocks new content when it reaches certain milestones, so it's worth persevering and learning the game. There are multiple difficulty levels above Normal anyway, and Easy mode if you need it.

Lizardcube's graphics turned out as good as you'd expect, coming off their stunning Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap remake, and the soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro and an all-star team of composers (Harumi Fujita! Yoko Shimomura! etc) is wonderful and dynamic, with the instrumentation adding further layers of intensity as more and tougher enemies enter the fray. It's an aesthetic marvel and tonally completely in fitting with what came before.

In case it wasn't obvious, I'm delighted with Streets of Rage 4. Not only is it a phenomenal successor to a legendary series, it's an incredibly polished, playable belt-scroller in its own right. I'd go so far as to call it the best beat 'em up of all time. Every level is memorable and none of them outstay their welcome. It's as easy and rewarding to jump in and out of as it is to session. A stunning achievement.

A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.